Released: November 1971
Chart Peak: #3
Weeks Charted: 46
Certified Gold: 3/3/72
In which the whimsy and vocal pyrotechnics of Aerial Ballet and Pandemonium Shadow Show (now cunningly collapsed into a disc called Aerial Pandemonium Ballet) are apotheosized under the direction of popmeister Richard Perry. The bathrobed recluse who shows his unshaven face on the cover (his well-stocked fridge is on the back) veers from kitsch fantasy both romantic ("Without You") and comic ("Coconut") to terrified evocations of everyday existence (the cockeyed antemeridian triptych -- "Gotta Get Up," "Driving Along," and "Early in the Morning" -- that kicks off side two). The two-and-a-half years since his last real LP, Harry, have been worth it -- if only every artist could learn to mark time until a good one was ready. A
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Nilsson's most successful album was a bouncy Richard Perry production, whose catchy songs were deepened by the singer's puckish humor. Contains the hits "Without You," "Jump Into The Fire," and "Coconut." * * * *
- William Ruhlmann, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Nilsson Schmillsson is a fine mix of hits and lesser-known delights. * * * 1/2
- Simon Glickman, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
Blessed with a tenor that could make angels weep and the smarts to know how to use it, Nilsson nevertheless failed to ignite the album charts until 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson. The hit single was Nilsson's powerful cover of "Without You," a previously overlooked cut written and first recorded by Badfinger. The rest of the album established Nilsson as a talent of unusual depth and scope: Years before public escapades with future drinking buddy Lennon confirmed Nilsson's personal excesses, Schmilsson plays like a study in bipolar disorder.
Beginning with the manic "Gotta Get Up" and continuing with the equally breezy and busy "Driving Along," the mood takes a dip with the skeletal and enchanted "Early in the Morning" before plummeting with the bluesy "Down." Side Two starts out with the Caribbean giddiness of "Coconut," then goes bonkers with "Jump Into the Fire," a wailing seven-minute bass-and-drum tantrum recently covered live by dance rock's LCD Soundsystem. On the albums that followed, Nilsson ventured into standards and ragged rock, but he would never again be this consistent or popular. * * * * *
- Barry Walters, Rolling Stone, 10/20/05.
With John Lennon and Paul McCartney hailing him as their favorite American artist, Harry Nilsson seemed destined for great things. But Nilsson was a shy, private man who struggled in the limelight, and unfortunately he never quite achieved his full potential.
The album Nilsson Schmilsson was a pivotal point in his career. Nilsson had decided to team up with British producer Richard Perry for the recording and Perry unleashed a new, crazily creative side to Nilsson. "Gotta Get Up," a witty tale about needing sleep, immediately strikes a chord with its 1930s ragtime tone, while "Down," with its earth-shattering, bluesy piano ensemble, commands attention. The insanely catchy calypso track "Coconut" was a hit (No. 8 in the U.S., No. 42 in the UK), and featured years later in the Quentin Tarantino movie Reservoir Dogs. "Jump Into The Fire" is dirty rock, proving that Nilsson could get down with the best of them.
The success of "Without You" led to the album shooting rapidly up the charts in both America and the UK. It spawned three hit singles and went gold before reaching No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard chart, yet somehow Nilsson still remains the unsung hero of the American pop music scene.
- Kate Taylor, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Between the demise of the Beatles and the explosion of California folk-rock in the early '70s, there was a brief period when storytellers like Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman became the locus of thinking-person's pop music. Newman was already esteemed as a genius tunesmith. Nilsson (1941-1994) was a slightly wilder character, a renaissance rogue determined to rescue pop from the straightlaced and the feckless.
Nilsson Schmilsson represents a particular peak of that arty era. A work of sheer swooning-strings opulence, it sits in the shadow of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's then-abandoned Smile, and the Beatles' "White Album." It's also a series of preposterous leaps designed to work on many levels at once: Nilsson's songs include inscrutable oompah marches, craftily arranged dime-store exotica (on the spooky "Coconut," he plays a potion-brewing island medicine man), and outbreaks of vaudeville camp.
These would be novelty numbers were if not for Nilsson's voice, which trembles constantly, with an inner-demon anguish. Having built his songs into towering mountains of sound, Nilsson sings them in a way that melts every contrivance of the accompaniment. His take on the then-popular Carpenters-style lilting love ode, "Without You," flirts dangerously with crooner bathos, yet somehow winds up sounding like the confessions of a ripped-apart romantic. His agitated rock anthem "Step into the Fire," a Doors knockoff, is similarly facile at first, yet blossoms into a platform for angry ranting. Nilsson's irreverence, coupled with the plain and gorgeous arcs of his melodies, put him in a class by himself. Often unjustly dismissed as a stylist or a mere eccentric, he was the rare auteur who, on this record at least, made circus-sideshow songs strike a nerve the way torch ballads usually do.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
Harry Nilsson had a voice like Paul McCartney and an ironic side like John Lennon. His finest record bursts with eccentric versatility, including island-novelty hit "Coconut," the smooth alienation of "Driving Along," and madcap rocker "Jump Into the Fire."
Nilsson Schmilsson was chosen as the 281st greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
Explore more Harry Nilsson on Nilssonschmillsson.com.
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